Your beloved is gone, but you’re still connected. On Facebook, at least. And Twitter, and any number of other social media apps you find yourself checking again, and again, for status updates, tags, locations. You crave any indication of where your ex is and what he or she is doing, and with whom. It’s hard to focus on much else.
Your best friend tells you to “stop stalking.” You’ve probably told yourself the same thing. Stalking is a popular term in the digital age. At times the term is used for genuinely inappropriate or scary behavior. Often it’s just slang for persistence in an age when ways to connect seem abundant, but real time exchanges are increasingly elusive. “I’m so glad to run into you. I’ve been stalking you all day!” a co-worker might exclaim, when all he means is he’s sent a couple of emails and a text. After I’ve made my tween daughter sign into her Instagram account on my phone, she hands it back and sniffs, “Now you can stalk me, mom.”
But the fact is that spending an hour Google-investigating an OKCupid prospect is not stalking. As I discuss in my book Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession, legal definitions of stalking generally entail a pattern of unwanted and threatening behavior that causes the target to fear for his or her safety. Merely scrutinizing the Facebook pages of all the new people your ex has friended since you broke up can’t be threatening because he or she doesn’t know you’re doing it. Of course, using social media to post harassing messages or track down someone who’s told you to stay away is a different story – and often a major feature of criminal stalking in the 21st century.
The more casual slang use of the term “stalking” is in one respect disturbing. I fear it distracts from the seriousness of real stalking, a crime that ruins lives. But in another respect the increasing presence of “stalk” in our everyday conversation reflects the anxiety of living in a world where we’re always on display. However enthusiastically we may post a photo of the incredible pasta dish we ate on vacation, or the award our kid won at school, there’s another part of us that’s uneasy at the prospect of a long ago lover or a sour co-worker looking at our posts and feeling something markedly other than shared joy: Jealousy? Longing? Nostalgia? Hatred? A desire to hurt us? There’s usually no way to know.
What’s more, if we participate in the social media fray, we perpetually live with the temptation to find out something new about the people in our online lives. This can be informative, pleasurable, and beneficial, fulfilling our “Awareness Instinct” – the innate need to learn about events beyond our direct experience so we can plan our lives and create community. But when you’re vulnerable in the wake of a romantic disappointment, this instinct can backfire, your attention fragmented by the need to check up on your ex’s digital presence because you can’t access his or her attention in real life.
Even if this behavior isn’t really stalking, it also isn’t a good idea. Gazing at online photos of your beloved is reward-seeking behavior – you’re trying to satisfy a craving to connect. But it’s like settling for gumdrops when what you really need is a meal: You’ll end up just as hungry as ever, and miserable. Research shows that people who browse friends’ profiles and don’t post anything themselves – what’s known as passive use – suffer a decrease in well-being; more than a third of Facebook users leave the site feeling worse than they did when they logged on. Most significantly, the more time people spend on an ex’s Facebook page, the worse they feel – and the harder it is to move on.
This kind of “Facebook stalking,” in the end, is much more about the person doing all that searching and checking than it is about the target. It’s a way of dealing with unresolved emotion and unfulfilled need by not fully letting go. If you’re falling down the rabbit hole of obsessive online tracking, it takes a lot of self-control to disconnect from your beloved – but the results will be worth it. Realize the more you give in to the impulse to seek your beloved out on social media, the more accustomed your brain will be to this weak and fleeting dose of connection. You’ll be saddled with a habit that may, in the moment, feel necessary. Yet it will never provide real emotional sustenance, or healing.
Black, M.C. et al., The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 Summary Report at http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/nisvs_report2010-a.pdf
Kovach, B. and Rosenstiel, T. The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007, 15.
Krasnova, H. “Envy on Facebook: A Hidden Threat to Users’ Life Satisfaction?” Wirstschaftsinformatik Proceedings 2013 at http://aisel.aisnet.org/wi2013/92/.
Marshall, T.C. “Facebook Surveillance of Former Romantic Partners: Associations with Post Breakup Recovery and Personal Growth.” Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking (2012), 15 (10): 521-526 at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3472530/.
Verduyn, P. et al., “Passive Facebook Usage Undermines Affective Well-Being: Experimental and Longitudinal Evidence.” Journal of Experimental Psychology (2015), 144 (2): 480-8.